Famed physicist Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about time, wasn’t too worried about what was on the horizon.
“I never think about the future,” Einstein told a gaggle of reporters aboard an ocean liner docked in New York in December 1930. “It comes soon enough.”
With apologies to the professor, today marks the start of a new decade in Spokane, and perhaps now is the time to think about our future. The 2020s are projected to include the completion of major public works projects in the Inland Northwest, along with changes to the way we learn and communicate with each other. Perhaps most important to Spokane’s residents is the performance of a certain basketball team that soared to new heights in the 2010s, setting themselves up to potentially crest the mountaintop in the next 10 years.
Here are a few stories you can expect to read about in the pages of The Spokesman-Review before 2029.
Gonzaga men’s basketball hangs a national championship banner at The Kennel
At the risk of jinxing one of the most successful basketball programs in the NCAA over the past 10 seasons, the Bulldogs have been priming themselves to hoist the national championship trophy for the better part of a decade.
Gonzaga has made five straight trips to the Sweet 16, the longest such streak in the country. And they’ve done it by adapting their style of play and incorporating new, young players into a tradition of winning basketball, said Jim Meehan, who covers the Zags for The Spokesman-Review.
“What’s really changed is that now every year, they seem to have a shot,” Meehan said.
Winning the NCAA Tournament is a gantlet where one slip-up in March can derail a season. The Zags found that out the hard way in 2013, falling as a No. 1 seed in the round of 32 to underdog Wichita State. Their current streak of Sweet 16-or-better finishes began two years later, with the team reaching the national championship game in 2017.
Strong finishes in the WCC regular season have begat favorable seeding in the conference tournament, which has resulted in favorable seeding for the NCAA Tournament, Meehan said. This year’s team, which closed the calendar year at No. 1 in both the AP and USA Today/Coaches Poll rankings, is also likely headed for another 30-win season, which will put them in contention come March.
“I think the expectations now are enormous,” Meehan said.
Still, if this run from Mark Few and his squad continues, it’s only a matter of time before the Zags are celebrating a championship down Spokane Falls Boulevard.
Spokane continues to grapple with opioid, nicotine addiction, heat and vaccine-preventable diseases
What’s old will likely be new again in the field of public health in Spokane, said Bob Lutz, the health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District.
The region’s struggle to deal with the fallout of over-prescription of opioid painkillers, the damaging health effects of climate change and children getting hooked on nicotine are all likely to continue to be challenges in the new decade.
“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now is kids are being introduced to tobacco, unbeknownst to them,” said Lutz, referring to the exploding popularity of vaping among the area’s school-age population.
A 2018 study published in the journal Tobacco Control found that 63% of survey respondents between the ages of 15 and 24 who reported using the popular vaping product Juul were unaware it contained nicotine. In Spokane County, 27% of 10th graders reported using e-cigarette products in the past 30 days in a 2018 survey conducted by the health district.
Lutz said that showed younger people were getting hooked on the drug through means other than cigarettes. With regulators now pushing to ban certain flavors and restrict sales to those age 21 and older, many e-cigarette users may return to more traditional sources of nicotine in the coming decade because of their addiction, Lutz said.
“It’s definitely an issue in the past, and it will definitely be one going forward,” he said.
That’s also true of opioid abuse. Even though prescriptions for addictive painkillers have fallen since their peak in Spokane County in 2008, Lutz said, the number of overdose deaths on substitute, illicit drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine continue to climb in the region, according to statistics compiled by the Medical Examiner’s Office.
“With fewer prescribers, and all kinds of regulations and guidelines, people are turning to illicit substances to take the place of opioids, including heroin and fentanyl,” Lutz said.
Another area of concern for the health district is the declining number of children vaccinated against preventable diseases, and the return of illnesses that have been eradicated or reduced by herd immunity.
Susan Sjoberg, manager of the health district’s program promoting immunization against communicable diseases, said recent resurgences of whooping cough in Spokane and the measles in Western Washington portend future battles against illnesses once considered eradicated.
“That’s what we spend a lot of our time, now, doing,” Sjoberg said of promoting inoculation.
Spokane is also in the midst of a hepatitis A outbreak that began in June among unvaccinated adults, Sjoberg said.
It’s too soon to say whether a measure passed in 2019 by the state Legislature limiting the exemptions to vaccination that parents can seek for their schoolchildren, and a requirement that administration of those vaccines be medically verified, will have an effect going forward, she said.
The other potential major driver of public health news in the 2020s will be the changing climate, Lutz said. In addition to wildfire smoke concerns, drier and hotter summers will have the largest impact on those who can’t afford climate control in their homes and on those living on the street.
“The elderly, the really young and the homeless are much more susceptible to heat-related problems,” he said.
Wearing your reality on your face
At the beginning of the 2010s, virtual reality was still relegated to the arcades and the excited talk of Trekkies dreaming of a real-life holodeck.
But social media juggernaut Facebook turned heads in 2014 when it spent $2 billion to acquire Oculus, an up-and-coming tech firm developing a virtual reality headset. The company had sold 3.6 million of its headsets between the beginning of 2018 and July, according to figures released by market research firm SuperData.
While there are still many skeptical of the technology’s ability to breakthrough to the average consumer, others are more bullish on the potential of virtual reality. Or, perhaps, augmented reality, which blends the real world and heads-up displays to create a unique experience for the user.
“I picture walking into a grocery store, and walking down the cereal aisle while wearing AR glasses, and all of the cereal boxes are moving,” said Rand Miller, who co-created Cyan Worlds, the Mead-based video game developer responsible for the hit ’90s computer-game franchise “Myst.”
Miller has been moving his company more toward the virtual reality space, first with “Obduction,” an adventure game created for traditional PCs that the company later rebuilt for virtual reality headsets. Now, Cyan is working on “Firmament,” a video game intended to be played on VR equipment, including the Rift.
The advent of augmented reality, the likes of which Miller sees in the future, doesn’t come without its social pitfalls. Miller has watched his young relatives playing VR games in a crowded living room, unaware of each other’s existence. VR pushes people away from each other, he said, while augmented reality leaves the possibility for human contact.
“In 2026, or ’27, my wife and I will be sitting on the sofa and I’ll say, ‘Do you want to watch Netflix?’ ” Miller said. “And with my hands, I’ll draw a screen on the wall, and I pick what we’re going to watch.”
There’s also the problem of people experiencing their own realities in real-time, unaware of what someone else in the room is seeing. While the technology holds great potential for informing and entertaining the public, it runs the risk of furthering the divide between people, a scenario Miller said he’s very much aware of.
“There’s a ‘Black Mirror’ aspect to all of this,” Miller said, referencing the TV series that explores the potential evil present in technological advances.
Sixth-graders in Spokane will start to attend middle school
Over the next five years, students in Spokane Public Schools will experience middle school more like a majority of American public school children.
Beginning in fall 2021, sixth graders will start attending three-year middle schools throughout the city. The transition, which will take place over four years in phases throughout Spokane, is taking place after voters approved $495 million in construction bonds in 2018. That money will be used, in part, to build three new middle schools and replace the existing Shaw, Glover and Sacajawea middle schools.
The new schools will be built on land near the rebuilt Joe Albi Stadium in the Northwest neighborhood, on former Water Department property off North Foothills Drive near Gonzaga Prep and on the South Hill near Mullan Road Elementary.
Moving sixth graders to a new building will ease crowding in the district’s elementary buildings, and was approved by 91% of respondents to a districtwide survey in 2018.
The exact date of the switch, and which students will attend which school, is still being worked out by the district.
Motorists will be zipping from Interstate 90 to Wandermere on the highway … maybe
Spokane’s white whale of a public transportation project has a current expected completion date of 2029, but that long-sought day may be delayed further after voters statewide passed an initiative limiting car tab fees.
Much of the funding for the 10.5-mile-long highway, connecting the Wandermere area to the Thor and Freya interchange near Interstate 90, comes from gas tax fees. But in an op-ed penned earlier this month, Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar conceded that Initiative 976 had caused the state agency to put some of the work on hold while lawmakers determine how to move forward with future budget priorities.
The decision has angered some conservative groups, which argue the move was an attempt to put pressure on the courts and public to overturn the initiative.
Beth Bousley, a spokeswoman for the department’s Eastern Region, said in an email this week that any revisions to the completion date won’t be known until after the state Legislature approves its biennial budget this spring.
When it is completed, the $1.5 billion project will reduce the time to drive from I-90 to Wandermere to 12 minutes. Lawmakers are bullish on the possibility of freight moving quickly to the region from Canada and not clogging area roads, including Division Street.
Brush fires, smoke likely to continue in the region, but their severity each year could be dynamic
The smoke and constant reports of brush fires are likely to continue in Eastern Washington, but their severity is up for some debate and will likely depend on how much fire-prone growth is thinned from the region’s forests in the coming decade.
A 2013 study by the College of Environment at the University of Washington used climate modeling to predict that 800,000 acres of forestland would burn in Washington state annually, beginning in the 2020s. That projection is based upon greenhouse gas emissions and climate data, and concluded that areas of the “Palouse Prairie” that would burn by the 2040s would be double that of previous years, as well as more widespread fires in areas of the state that rarely burned.
Portions of that prediction have already come true. The Washington Department of Natural Resources reported this year more fires starting west of the Cascades, causing the Legislature to approve larger-than-normal funds for wildfire fighting and suppression. Since 2014, the number of acres reported burned in the state has exceeded the 10-year average four times, including exceeding 1 million acres during the 2015 firefighting season.
But in 2016 and this year, fire totals were much closer to the lower end of the spectrum. That’s evidence of wildfire totals regressing to the mean after years of anomalies, said Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at UW.
“The difference was, the meteorology was very different,” Mass said of this year’s less severe fire season. “We had more moisture in 2019 and it wasn’t as hot.”
While fire and smoke totals could grow to the heights seen in 2015, 2017 and 2018, those years were outliers, Mass said. His writing, including a popular meteorological blog, has drawn some criticism from environmental groups for being too conservative in their estimates of climate change’s effects.
Downtown travelers will hop aboard the electric Central City Line bus in 2022
Spokane Transit Authority is still aiming for May 2022 for completion of its Central City Line, a modern electric bus that is intended to move 1 million passengers between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College each year.
STA is in its final design phase for the line, and in 2019 secured all the funding necessary to complete the $92 million project. Planners said earlier this fall that passage of I-976, which has put the completion date of the North Spokane Corridor in question, won’t affect the Central City Line work, and the agency confirmed that in an email this week.
Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring.
When completed, passengers will be able to hop aboard the bus in Browne’s Addition and make stops at the STA Plaza, the Spokane Convention Center, the University District and the community college, as well as other major intersections downtown. During peak operation times in the morning and evening, an electric bus would arrive at each station every 7 1/2 minutes.
Political campaigns continue to spend big, use unregulated social media space to spread their messages
Political candidates will likely look to digital advertising more and more in the next decade, forcing social media groups to develop an approach to misinformation, said Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University who specializes in political advertising.
“They’re going to continue to use big data in order to micro-target their messages,” he said.
Facebook and Twitter have both had to respond to charges originating during the 2016 presidential election that their platforms had been used to spread falsehoods damaging the prospects of candidates.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey responded by pledging the platform would ban political ads, a promise that has been met with skepticism as the social media giant tries to develop policies to implement the ban. And Facebook has said it will not do its own fact-checking of content promoted on its platform.
That leaves Congress to try and develop some public policy around campaign messaging, a scenario that doesn’t seem likely given the current partisan climate in Washington, D.C., Ridout said.
“In part, Congress is constrained by a court that equates political speech with free speech,” he said, referring to the landmark Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, which paved the way for more dark money groups to involve themselves in political campaigns.
Such spending has filtered down to the local level, as independent expenditures – political communication made on behalf of a candidate without their involvement – ballooned in the 2019 Spokane municipal elections, totaling more than three quarters of a million dollars.
Ridout said it’s uncertain when that type of spending could be seen again at the local level, but it will be another four years before so many political seats are up for grabs in Spokane.
“It seems it kind of goes in bursts and spurts,” Ridout said of local spending.
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